When USA Swimming released in its Board of Directors meeting notes in March that the organization was planning to begin selling alcohol at senior-level meets, the idea was met with heavy criticism questioning the safety of athletes, and the type of culture that the sales might promote.
Regardless, USA Swimming went ahead with the plan and incorporated alcohol sales into the fan experience with a “beer garden” at the 2018 Phillips 66 National Championships. The garden is located well away from the pool, behind the grandstand, in the enclosed “Aqua Zone,” which features vendors, food trucks, and games. However, fans are allowed to bring their drinks into the spectator bleachers.
SwimSwam spoke with USA Swimming Chief Marketing Officer Matt Farrell to find out how the inaugural program has been going.
He noted that USA Swimming partnered with local brewery Saint Archer and Northern California winery Whitehall Lane for beverage options, and that both can be purchased in the garden and in the Speedo VIP Deck (of Kobe Bryant fame).
“Looking back to when this came out, that USA Swimming was looking into it, I think it took on a life of its own of this perception of some type of a big party atmosphere, and people started looking at things that maybe happen in other professional sports – it’s been the exact opposite,” Farrell told SwimSwam. He added that he would have liked the idea to have been presented more ceremoniously, rather than in the BoD notes, which led to people picturing “parents with their feet up drinking a margarita.”
When the plans were released, they detailed the involvement of the Alcohol, Tobacco, and Gambling Task Force in guiding the specifics of the program – both USA Swimming officials and athletes including Anthony Ervin were said to be involved. And from the outside looking in at the meet, one probably wouldn’t even notice that alcohol was being served – save a scattering of patrons with clear Saint Archer branded cups.
“This has been a very respectful crowd, casual crowd – it’s still a family crowd, and it’s rolled out about as well as we could have hoped,” Farrell said. “There have been zero security issues, there haven’t been any problems talking with the facility and event staff. It’s just been treated very responsibly by the event, the organizers and the people taking advantage of it.”
“It has worked extremely well,” he continued. “It has been a really casual environment, and really enjoyed by people, and the positive feedback has been overwhelming.” Farrell did not have sales numbers immediately available.
It does appear that this program will likely continue. Farrell said that USA Swimming is currently only looking at Pro Swim Series-level meets and up, including Winter Nationals, Nationals, and Olympic Trials; the organization has not yet considered any open water events.
Another aspect of involving alcohol in the fan experience might include company sponsorships. The original notes included suggested guidelines if such an opportunity arose, noting that alcohol-adjacent companies “primarily known for being a restaurant that serve(s) alcohol,” or if “alcohol, liquor, bar, pub, distillery, etc., is not directly referenced in the name of the establishment,” would not have restrictions if the guidelines were approved.
Besides USA Swimming, this would also allow teams to seek sponsorship, where companies fitting the above criteria could be promoted on team websites, in adult-targeted communications, adult-focused venues, and activities. However, Farrell said that no alcohol-related sponsorships are currently being planned.
“Those sponsorships [Saint Archer and Whitehall Lane] are just for this particular event,” he said. “There’s nothing in-the-works from a national perspective. And even if it was, that would be reserved for adult-focused events: at Trials, Nationals – those types of events. That would never penetrate down to the grassroots level and youth level.”